As you know, this blog is primarily about creative nonfiction, considered the “fourth genre,” that fuses nonfiction, memoir, and journalistic reporting to create literary pieces. So I thought what better question to answer:
How do you define creative nonfiction?
Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. According to Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the popular journal, Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary journal to publish nonfiction, exclusively, “The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.”
This general meaning of the term is basically acknowledged and accepted in the literary world; poets, fiction writers—the creative writing community in general—understand and accept the elements of creative nonfiction, although their individual interpretation of the genre’s boundaries may differ. The essential point is that there are clear lines of demarcation points between fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.
There is, it is true, controversy over the legitimacy of creative nonfiction, both as a term and as a genre. Quality of language and novelty are central to deciding when a text qualifies as creative nonfiction and when it must be regarded as just another text. The creative part of the term ‘creative nonfiction’ is the defining element. Truly creative nonfiction does more than spruce up the adjectives in a piece of straight reporting; it adds fresh, original insights to a topic that might otherwise seem mundane or formulaic.
Ultimately, this controversy over the form or the word is rather silly and a moot point: the genre itself, the practice of writing nonfiction in a dramatic and imaginative way, has been an anchoring element of the literary world for years. First person nature writing of the caliber produced by contemporary writer Barry Lopez, and reflective writing that incorporates elements of great nature writing such as the prose created by Annie Dillard are two good examples of contemporary creative nonfiction at its best. Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness narratives continue to provoke and inspire, making them perfect early examples of creative nonfiction.
George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff are classic creative nonfiction efforts—books that communicate information (reportage) in a scenic, dramatic fashion. These four books represent the full spectrum of creative nonfiction: Baldwin’s work is memoir and therefore more personal or inward, dealing with the dynamics of his relationship with his father and the burden of race in America; Wolfe’s work is more journalistic or outward, capturing the lives of the early astronauts. Death in the Afternoon and Down and Out in Paris and London fall somewhere in between—personal, like memoir, but filled with information about bullfighting and poverty, respectively. Gutkind often refers to this combination as “the parallel narratives of creative nonfiction: There is almost always a “public” and a ‘private’ story.”
Perhaps creative nonfiction’s greatest asset is it offers flexibility and freedom while still adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative nonfiction, writers can be journalistic and poetic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to use literary and even cinematic techniques, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real lives, that can and have changed the world.
Different writers say different things about why they write in this form. Lee Gutkind talks about the form as a quest for understanding and information. The cultural critic, Bell Hooks, says she wrote her memoir Bone Black in order to “recover the past.” Essayist, memoirist, and diva of prose style Annie Dillard says she writes to “fashion a text.” Dorothy Allison has used the stories of her life in both fiction and nonfiction in order, she says, “to save my life.” The report, the critique, the rumination, the lyric impression , and even the stray hard fact are all found in contemporary creative nonfiction writing. It is the mix of all these elements that make creative nonfiction an illuminating and moving form of historical documentary, as well as brilliant literature.
I’m with Annie Dillard when I say creative nonfiction writing is first about the formation of a text, the creation of piece of art, just like any painting or musical composition. Your life and the life of the world is your raw material, as much a part of the mix as is the paint, the chords, the words. Your subjects might be any part of this world.
I end with some of my favorite words on the subject of creating creative nonfiction literature. This is a quote from Annie Dillard, from her famous essay “To Fashion a Text.”
When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted 15 years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.
Announcement: On Wednesday, July 18, 2012, Interview with Rebecca Forster, author of the Witness series! Don’t miss it!